There are plenty of web-based and mobile technologies your institution can use to support online learning.
This kind of approach has both advantages and disadvantages. We recommend your institution weighs up the risks and benefits and puts systems in place to manage any ongoing risk.
One advantage of adopting external software or services is that they are, or appear to be, free for the institution and students to use.
In reality, they are likely to require some level of support and staff may even require more support during initial stages.
Some start-up services are initially free and then implement a charged service once they are established. Many offer a free basic service but charge for additional elements such as management or tracking features, which educators will want to use.
A significant risk associated with using external services is that they cease to operate or exist in the middle of a course. It’s therefore important to have a contingency plan, with alternative services to turn to if you need to preserve and manage any content made in the defunct system.
Some students may be better using certain external technologies and services than staff, which can make staff feel insecure, but this isn’t true for all students. Students who use technology extensively for social or leisure purposes may not be able to use it well for learning.
You will need to support learners in using a course or your institution’s preferred technologies, but could offer clear guidance around which specific technologies it will or won’t support.
Including digital literacy skills within the curriculum is one way to ensure that learners develop the skills they need.
Establishing a self-help or peer support approach can also be useful, and can even be used to create and share tutorials. But teaching staff will need to relinquish some control of teaching and learning to allow this to work.
The digital storytelling course (ds106) in the US1 is a great example of this peer-support approach working well, as it encourages participants to both create their own assignments and develop tutorials to help others do them.
Evaluating suitable technologies
IT support services and other central services might object to using external technologies. This reluctance can leave teaching staff having to provide technical as well as teaching support. Some staff and departments may be able to do this, and to test out various technologies to see if they suit their courses.
Evaluating these activities and feeding back to senior managers helps to make the case for the institution to accept and support these technologies on a wider scale.
Case study - using Wordpress to support online open classes
The University of Coventry’s media department2 used WordPress blogs to support online open classes. The external online platform allowed staff to manage content from both registered and open students, as well as from external contributors.
The marketing department was initially concerned about not using the institutional web services, but the media team recorded the level of activity on the WordPress blog and the figures spoke for themselves. The volume of traffic provided tangible evidence that the sites attracted visitors from around the world, raising the profile of the university.
Usability and reliability
Any technology or services your institution uses (or considers) should allow users to achieve their goals quickly with minimum effort or errors, and provide an acceptable ‘user experience’
We recommend testing the usability, reliability and user experience of institutional technologies early on in implementation. Test again once the technology is up and running by assessing ongoing feedback and analysing patterns of use.
We recommend central services get involved with this process and take responsibility for assessing externally provided technologies to ensure new systems are usable as they can be.
If this responsibility falls to individual teachers or department technical support staff they may need further training.
|Barriers||What you can do|
|Central or departmental IT support teams reluctant to support non-institutional technologies.||Include innovative use of technologies in institutional strategies and policies|
|Develop mechanisms and procedures to include all the right people in making decisions about non-institutional technologies|
|Provide evaluation data from initiatives within the institution, or from other institutions.|
|Staff lack the expertise to use new technologies in a teaching and learning context.||Provide staff training and support|
|Offer staff mentoring.|
|Students lack the skills to integrate non-institutional technologies into their learning.||Incorporate digital literacies into the curriculum|
|Include digital storytelling and digital identity in the curriculum|
|Provide additional support to online learners|
- 1 Digital storytelling course (ds106) - http://assignments.ds106.us/
- 2 University of Coventry's use of Wordpress to support online classes - http://disruptivemedia.org.uk/portfolio/jisc-coventry-open-media-classes/